The foremost song parodist of his generation, "Weird Al" Yankovic has carried the torch of musical humor more proudly and more successfully than any performer since Allan Sherman, and while Sherman’s recording career spanned six years, Yankovic’s was still going strong nearly four decades after his debut. In the world of novelty records — a genre noted for its extensive back catalog of flashes in the pan and one-hit wonders — Yankovic is king, scoring smash after smash over the course of an enduring career that has found him topically mocking everything from new wave (“Dare to Be Stupid,” a letter-perfect “style parody” of Devo on 1985′s Dare to Be Stupid) and Michael Jackson (his commercial breakthrough, “Eat It,” on 1984′s In 3-D) to grunge (“Smells Like Nirvana” from 1992′s Off the Deep End) and gangsta rap (his goof on Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’” and “White and Nerdy” on 2006′s Straight Outta Lynwood). He even received the ultimate show biz accolade, a wildly inaccurate biopic: 2022′s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
Alfred Matthew Yankovic was born October 23, 1959, in Downey, California. An only child, he began playing the accordion at age seven, following in the tradition of polka star Frank Yankovic (no relation). In his early teens, he became an avid fan of the Dr. Demento show, drawing inspiration from the parodies of Allan Sherman as well as the musical comedy of Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, and Stan Freberg. In 1973, Demento spoke at Yankovic’s school, where the 13-year-old passed the radio host a demo tape of home recordings; three years later, Demento played Yankovic’s “Belvedere Cruising” — an accordion-driven pop song written about the family’s Plymouth — on the air, and his career was launched.
Yankovic quickly emerged as a staple of the Demento play list, recording a prodigious amount of tongue-in-cheek material throughout his high school career. After graduation, he studied architecture; while attending California Polytechnic State University, he also joined the staff of the campus radio station, first adopting the nickname “Weird Al” and spinning a mixture of novelty and new wave hits. In 1979, the success of the Knack’s monster hit “My Sharona” inspired Yankovic to record a parody dubbed “My Bologna”; not only was the song a smash with Demento fans but it even found favor with the Knack themselves, who convinced their label, Capitol, to issue the satire as a single.
After graduating in 1980, Yankovic cut “Another One Rides the Bus,” a parody of Queen’s chart-topping “Another One Bites the Dust” recorded live in Dr. Demento’s studios. The song became an underground hit, and Yankovic followed it up with “I Love Rocky Road,” a satire of Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ’n Roll.” After hooking up with noted session guitarist and producer Rick Derringer, he signed to Scotti Brothers, which issued his debut LP, "Weird Al" Yankovic, in 1983. The album featured the song “Ricky,” a tune inspired equally by Toni Basil’s hit “Mickey” and the I Love Lucy television series; issued as a single, it hit the Top 100 charts, and its accompanying video became a staple of the fledgling MTV network.
Ultimately, much of Yankovic’s success resulted from his skilled use of the music video, a medium not available in the era of Spike Jones or Allan Sherman. Suddenly, not only could records themselves serve as parody fodder, but their video clips were ripe for satire as well. Additionally, MTV firmly established Yankovic’s public persona; sporting garish Hawaiian shirts and an arsenal of goofy mannerisms, he cut a unique figure that he consistently exploited to maximum comic effect. After Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” became the most acclaimed video in the medium’s brief history, Yankovic recorded “Eat It” for his sophomore effort, 1984′s "Weird" Al Yankovic in 3-D; the “Eat It” video, which mocked the “Beat It” clip scene-for-scene, became an MTV smash, and the Grammy-winning single reached the Top 15.
In addition to “Eat It,” In 3-D also launched the minor hits “King of Suede” (a rewrite of the Police’s “King of Pain”) and “I Lost on Jeopardy” (a send-up of the Greg Kihn Band’s “Jeopardy”), as well as “Polkas on 45,” the first in a series of medleys of pop hits recast as polka numbers. Dare to Be Stupid, the first comedy record ever released in the new compact disc format, followed in 1985, and featured “Like a Surgeon,” a takeoff of the Madonna hit “Like a Virgin.” Like its predecessor, Dare to Be Stupid went gold, but 1986′s Polka Party! fared poorly and charted only briefly, prompting many to write off Yankovic’s career.
However, in 1988, Yankovic returned with the platinum-selling Even Worse, its title and album cover a reference to Michael Jackson’s recent Bad LP. “I’m Fat,” the first single and video, also parodied the lavish Martin Scorsese-directed clip for Jackson’s hit “Bad”; shot on the same subway set used by Jackson, the video won him his second Grammy. The next year, he starred in the feature film UHF, which he also co-wrote; a soundtrack appeared as well.
After an extended period of silence, he returned in 1992 with Off the Deep End, which featured the Top 40 hit “Smells Like Nirvana,” a send-up of Nirvana’s landmark single “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After 1993′s Alapalooza, he resurfaced in 1996 with Bad Hair Day, his highest-charting record to date thanks to the success of the single “Amish Paradise,” a takeoff of the Coolio hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” The follow-up, Running with Scissors, appeared in 1999, with Poodle Hat landing in 2003. Straight Outta Lynwood arrived in 2006 with the single “White & Nerdy,” a suburban parody of Chamillionaire’s hit “Ridin.”
Yankovic’s 13th studio album, 2011′s Alpocalypse, skewered the likes of Lady Gaga (“Perform This Way”) and Miley Cyrus (“Party in the CIA”). His 2014 effort Mandatory Fun was introduced by eight videos posted to the Internet before its release. It debuted at number one, becoming the first comedy album to do so in more than 50 years, while the single “Word Crimes” hit No. 39 on the singles chart, putting him in exclusive company with Michael Jackson and Madonna as the only artists to have a Top 40 single in each decade from the 1980s through to the 2010s. The release also earned Weird Al his fourth Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, and his “Mandatory World Tour” saw him perform 200 shows in the space of nine months. In December 2017, Yankovic’s second box set was released; Squeeze Box: The Complete Works of "Weird Al" Yankovic featured remastered editions of 14 albums as well as a disc of rare material packaged in a case that resembled an accordion.
In 2018, Yankovic released “The Hamilton Polka,” an oom-pah-pah medley of numbers from the smash Broadway musical Hamilton, which became the first polka track to ever appear on the Digital Songs Sales Chart. That same year, he launched “The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour,” a string of shows that focused on original songs rather than the song parodies that brought him his greatest success. The tour was a critical and popular success and was followed in 2019 with the “Strings Attached” Tour, which saw Yankovic and his band performing with local symphony orchestras at each stop. In 2010, the humor website Funny or Die produced a parody movie trailer for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, an over-the-top (and mostly fictional) biopic about the triumphs and tragedies of Yankovic’s career that poked fun at overcooked, made-for-cable celebrity biographies. The phony trailer was popular and well-received, and Yankovic and director Eric Appel set out to expand it to feature length. In September 2022, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it made its debut on the Roku streaming service a month later. The film was a hit with critics, though it failed to win a theatrical release, spoiling Yankovic’s hopes for a Best Original Song Oscar nomination for “Now You Know,” a tune he wrote for the film. It appeared on the 2023 soundtrack album to Weird, along with newly recorded versions of many of Yankovic’s better-known songs and cues from the movie’s original score by Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson. ~ Jason Ankeny & Mark Deming